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Shemot 5770
Women of the Wall

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
9 January 2010


Ross Kemp’s documentary or perhaps it should be called expose, highlighting the tensions in Israel and Gaza have been surprising for a number of reasons. However, one of the revelations that were most surprising to the former Eastenders star, was the observation that Israeli society is as divided amongst itself as the divisions between Israelis and Palestinians. For those who are familiar with Israeli, Jewish society, this is not news; indeed one might argue that it only reflects the divisions that seem to be inherent within Judaism. What does one really expect when you bring Jews together from all around the world? True, they have a shared tradition of being Jews, perhaps defined by being a ‘People;’ but otherwise they are Eastern European, Ethiopian, North American and British, Moroccan and French, Argentinean and Yemeni, Indian and Spanish. Judaism is but one of their identifying features and even within the tiny communities that exist in places like Baghdad and the Yemen, there are still Jews who cannot pray together. And then when they come to talk about politics, well!

So it is no real surprise that Ross Kemp found divisions amongst the Jews of Israel, only that the documentary was actually sensitive enough to begin to expose the complexities of the Middle East, rather than take a generalist and partisan view.

This week, another issue surfaced that concerns discrimination against Progressive Jews and women in particular in Israel. It relates to a group of women who call themselves the ‘Women of the Wall.’

Women of the Wall has members and supporters around the world who cross the denominational divides. They first met in December 1998 at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Second Temple, to pray and to read aloud from the Torah. Some wore kippot, tallitot or tefillin. They were met on that occasion and subsequent occasions by physical violence that caused actual bodily harm and a torrent of abuse from both Charedi men and women. The Women of the Wall continued to organise monthly prayer services to mark Rosh Chodesh, the new moon festival.

The Kotel is in the control of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Women of the Wall has fought a long legal battle asserting a right to conduct organised prayer at the Kotel and challenging government and private intervention in its efforts, which ultimately led to two Israeli Supreme Court decisions and to a series of debates in the Knesset. In its first decision, on May 22, 2002, the Supreme Court authorised Women of the Wall to hold prayer groups in the women's section of the main Kotel plaza undisturbed. Four days later, Charedi political parties introduced several bills to overturn the decision, including a bill that would have made it a criminal offense for women to pray in non-traditional ways at the western wall, punishable by up to seven years in prison. Although the bill did not pass, the Israeli Supreme Court reconsidered its earlier decision. On April 6, 2003, the Court reversed itself and upheld, 5-4, the Israeli government's ban prohibiting the organization from meeting at the main public area at the Wall, on the grounds that continued meetings represented a threat to public safety and order. The Court required the government to provide an alternate site, Robinson's Arch around the corner from the main Kotel Plaza.

A few days ago, on January 5th, Anat Hoffman, the director of the Israel Religious Action Center, who spoke in our Shul last year was interrogated by the police for more than an hour about her activities during Women of the Wall's last monthly service in December. Speaking by phone from Jerusalem, Hoffman said she did nothing differently that day than she had for the 21 years of her group's existence.

But this incident follows the arrest in November of another member of the group, Nofrat Frenkel, and is contributing to a sense among the women in the organization that the Israeli authorities are stepping up their surveillance and intimidation of activities that challenge the ultra-Orthodox control of the holy site.

Hoffman said that the police told her that she was being investigated for violating a decision of the Israeli Supreme Court that prohibits women from wearing prayer shawls at the Wall. But the Women of the Wall claim to have accommodated themselves to the ruling; instead of donning the black-and-white tallitot, traditional for men, they each wear a smaller, multi-colored shawl like a scarf around the neck and under a coat, so as not to offend the strict sensibilities of other men and women at the Wall.

“It's a sad moment,” said Hoffman. She has gone to the police station in Jerusalem many times to lodge complaints against people who she says have attacked and occasionally physically hurt members of her group; none of those people have ever been arrested, she said. But this is the first time that she has been subject to interrogation herself. A lawyer and skillful advocate, she said that the questioning did not bother her, but the fingerprinting did. “There is something very violating about it,” she said.

I have to admit to being ambivalent about the Kotel. I checked during last summer’s visit to Israel and I confirmed that I had no special feeling there, only a feeling that I do not belong. As a Liberal Jew, references or reverence of any aspect of the ancient Temple of Jerusalem has no place in my religious practice. It is a fact of history and part of the development of my People’s worship to the superior form that we have today. Yet I do understand the centrality of the Kotel to Jews the world over, as a symbol of their ability to practice their faith.

The intervention of the police in such a way is extremely disturbing. In our Torah portion today, Moses and Aaron ask permission of Pharaoh for the Israelites to have a few moments off from their slave labours to worship freely. It was a test case, they had no thought that Pharaoh would accede to their requests. The Women of the Wall are a test case of the civil authorities of Israel. They and I can accept set-backs in the courts. We cannot accept the blatant intimidation of those who are attempting to practice their faith, the faith of the land no less, in the way that they choose.

This week, Liberal Judaism, the other non-orthodox denominations and our own Community through our representatives at the Board of Deputies, won another small but significant step towards changing the landscape of Anglo-Jewry. The Board of Deputies has accepted that there is no mandate for seeking a change to the laws of the Land through which the JFS, the Chief Rabbinate and the United Synagogue were successfully prosecuted. Our position is clear: We cannot return to the situation in Anglo-Jewry that the accused led us into. We have all contributed towards this and from what I have heard from Limmud, admittedly liberal - but still Orthodox - Jews seem to be agreeing.

We have contributed steps towards a change in the position for Progressive Jews in this country. Let us not forget our brothers and in this case, sisters, in Israel. Please do voice your concerns to the Israeli Ambassador to the UK, Ron Prosor, whom many of you recently met in this Synagogue. Please remind him of the hospitable welcome he received, in contrast to those of our fellow Progressive Jews at the Kotel. Please ask him to act so that the next time Ross Kemp visits Israel, he may see more equality for Jews in Israel on religious grounds, if not on political matters.


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